Is Hong Kong the new Lebanon?

November 15, 2019 12:17
Office workers gather during a lunchtime demonstration in Hong Kong’s Central district. Many people are angry at what they perceive as brutal police tactics on anti-government protesters. Photo: Reuters

It's official: the government has no idea what’s going on. This is precisely what Matthew Cheung, the Chief Secretary of Administration in Name Only (CSANO), told legislators this week when asked if he understood why people are so angry.

The CSANO’s problem, he explained, was that there was no public polling data on hand to answer this question but he ventured that it might have something to do with housing or the wealth gap or whatever.

Earlier in the week his boss, Carrie Lam, the Chief Executive in Name Only (CENO), told reporters that the government’s current plan to resolve the crisis is to do precisely nothing because there was no way that it could make concessions or engage with the protestors’ demands.

The only response left to the government is to give the police free rein to rampage through the streets, fling about amazing quantities of tear gas and beat up people in broad daylight because they no longer fear repercussions. They are now reinforcing their ranks with members of other disciplined services because beating up protestors really takes it out of the average officer.

In case anyone forgets what provoked Monday’s upsurge in violence, it was the shooting in the stomach of a young, unarmed protestor, now recovering in hospital. To ensure that his recovery is made that bit more painful, he has been arrested. Worse injuries have followed in the days since this incident.

The campuses of the Polytechnic and Chinese universities has been turned into battlegrounds and there have been quite amazing scenes in Central where the reality of police violence has been brought home to the smart, highly paid people who might have imagined that they were above all this. School children are being stopped and searched in the streets by police in full riot gear.

And, yes, to anticipate the bleating of the 50 cent-ers, there have been unjustifiable acts of violence from the side of the protestors, most notably, setting alight a middle-aged man in Ma On Shan.
No sane person believes that every protestor is an angel or indeed entirely rational but in normal circumstances the worst excesses of a protest movement can be kept in check by the overwhelming majority of peaceful people who are intent on achieving their aims without violence.

However, as everyone keeps saying these days, we are now in a situation of a new normal where violent protest is a daily occurrence, where the once respected police force has disintegrated into becoming an uncontrollable mob, where daily activity, such as going to work, involves a calculation of how to avoid blockages, etc and where the normal disagreements that occur in every family and among friends have deteriorated into bitter division.

Barking like mad dogs (apologies to my canine friends) are the semi-detached ravings of pro-China politicians and their rabid allies in the Mainland media as they call for even more repression, celebrate the injury and death of protestors and are pressing for the cancelation of elections on the perfectly logical grounds that if the people are given an opportunity to vote the overwhelming majority will not vote for them.

Bestriding this mess is the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, exasperated by the ineptitude of its hand-picked minions in Hong Kong, bitterly regretting that a Xinjiang-style crackdown cannot be inflicted on the SAR because it is just too visible and floundering for a way of sorting things out but finding that it has to be done without the normal tools favored by the dictatorship.

So, we are at stalemate. It may last sometime but equally it may result in something that looks very much like a festering permanent injury that nevertheless allows society to sort of keep functioning.

There is an example of how this works, which I am well aware of because I started my career as a journalist covering the Middle East. The example comes from Lebanon which, in its heyday, was the commercial hub of the region, the preferred destination of the rich because the Arab countries surrounding it were less safe and, frankly, less pleasant in many respects. It was the playground and place of business for the people who made the Middle East tick.

Then came the civil war which flared, subsided and flared again for an astonishing 25 years from 1975 to 1990. But even now, as recent events demonstrate, the war has not really ended. Yet people adjusted and got on with their lives. Many left the country while others found a way of managing the Lebanese new normal. Predictably its pivotal role in the region shrunk and then disappeared. Lebanon is still there and occasionally offers glimpses of the glory that it once enjoyed but the magic has gone and almost certainly won’t come back.

Reputations are hard to build but easy to destroy -- this is the lesson from Lebanon. And that brings us to the simple question: is Hong Kong the new Lebanon?

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Hong Kong-based journalist, broadcaster and book author. His latest book, Defying the Dragon – Hong Kong and the world’s largest dictatorship, will be published by Hurst Publishers in early 2021.